When Tom Stoppard centered his 1984 comedy around a semi-autobiographical character, he entered a house of mirrors, trying to capture real life in a play about life imitating art.
The main character in The Real Thing is an English playwright unwittingly trapped in the cycles of love and betrayal that fuel his own fictional creations. When the play opens, Henry's play-within-the-play, House of Cards, is running, with his own wife, Charlotte, cast in the role of an apparently unfaithful wife. In real life, Charlotte is a vindictive flirt, lashing out at Henry by toying with her co-star, apparently unaware that their respective spouses are having some intertwined indiscretions of their own.
The play gets remarkably better as it progresses, and the second act as a whole represents a monumentally better play than the first act would indicate we're in store for. The first act is almost entirely exposition, with Stoppard overinfatuated with the clever little gimmicks up his sleeve, shunning substance in favor of overblown punch lines.
Stoppard cuts through to a much deeper level in Act 2, transferring his occasionally wordy infatuations to philosophical ruminations on writing, love and virginity. The sudden change of pace is disconcerting, but as the characters get fleshed out from flat to full before our eyes, we find ourselves increasingly invested in their emotional bushwhacking, surprisingly caught up in following relationships that have moved from the superficial to the real deal.
Director Michael D. Stansbery elicits dynamic performances from his cast, who keep their characters fluid and susceptible to change. Anthony T. Hughes is an endearing Henry, informing the character with three parts John Lovitz and two parts Austin Powers, ending up with a borderline nerdy British creation with an unquenchable desire to shag. Hughes navigates his character from the heights of literary snobbery all the way to his least poetic language and his rawest emotions with the confession: "because of you, I changed my socks."
Andrea Wright is the other shining light on the stage as Charlotte, capturing her ennui, vengeance, bitterness and maternal confidence. Kimberly D. Lovins makes enormous strides with her Annie, Henry's second wife. It takes most of the play for Annie to emerge from the shadow of her early actions, but Lovins is convincing as an actress and activist, slowly winning the struggle between conflicting attractions. The entire production gets a lift when Katie Coleman takes the stage as Debbie, Henry and Charlotte's daughter, squashing Henry's romantic ideals with tales of extra lessons from her high-school Latin teacher downstairs in the boiler room. Coleman gives the production a much-needed energy boost and grounds the play in a reality beyond the temporal illusion of the actor's life.
The ambitious set is a marvel in concept, but it falls a few details short of achieving functionality. The eight different scenes are mounted on a revolving circular stage divided into three parts. Unfortunately, the motor doesn't have enough oomph to turn the set, necessitating that the running crew pull it by hand. Equally conspicuous are the doorways that don't quite align and don't always shut and the light switches that fall to the floor when a door is slammed too hard. But even when an entire black backdrop cascaded to the floor revealing the train scene to be taking place in a living room, the technical difficulties were not enough to overshadow the dramatic realities created by the cast.